Enviros fear Obama admin is dragging its feet on tailpipe emissions

Source: Jeremy P. Jacobs • E&E  • Posted: Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Environmentalists and public health groups are growing increasingly concerned that the Obama administration will punt on new emissions standards for the tailpipes of cars and trucks as industry and congressional Republicans are becoming increasingly vocal with their objections.

U.S. EPA is scheduled to propose rules this year that would reduce the amount of sulfur allowed in gasoline — a move that is expected to produce a significant drop in emissions of harmful nitrogen oxides (NOx) and carbon monoxide.

The agency included the “Tier 3” standards for gasoline and vehicles on its agenda for the year that was recently sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget. The proposed timeline calls for issuing a proposal by March and finalizing the rule by October.

However, EPA has yet to send a proposal to OMB, which could review it for up to 90 days and cause the agency to miss its March deadline.

That is raising concerns among environmentalists that the agency could delay the rule for political reasons. Industry claims that the rule would increase the price of gasoline, a consequence that Republicans would be sure to use against President Obama in his re-election bid if gas prices are on the rise.

“This is the single most crucial step EPA could take to lower smog levels across the nation,” said Frank O’Donnell of Clean Air Watch. “It is urgent that EPA send its proposal to OMB as soon as possible, or this could become a tragically lost opportunity.”

EPA’s current Tier 2 standards date back to 1999, and the agency has indicated that it is leaning toward limiting the amount of sulfur in gasoline to 10 parts per million, a standard already in place in California, Japan and the European Union. The current limit is 30 ppm.

Such a limit, according to a 2011 study by the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, would reduce vehicle NOx emissions by 60 percent, carbon monoxide by about 38 percent and other volatile organic compounds by close to a third. Those cuts would result in a health benefit of more than 400 avoided premature deaths per year, environmentalists contend.

The new Tier 3 standards also have the support of several state environmental commissioners who wrote to EPA last week urging the agency to put forth the rule.

Industry and Republicans, however, have charged that the rule would place a significant economic burden on the oil sector. An industry study last year suggested that complying with the 10 ppm sulfur standard would cost up to $17 billion to upgrade equipment at refineries. That, they said, could add between 12 and 25 cents to each gallon of gasoline at the pump (E&ENews PM, Jan. 12)

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said Friday that Obama was “quietly” moving to “raise the gas tax” with the Tier 3 standards.

“The Obama regulatory assault on affordable energy continues. This is the last thing hard working American families need,” Inhofe said in a statement. “Once upon a time, President Obama vowed not to raise the gas tax until the economy recovers. If this is what he calls economic recovery, we are in big trouble.

Public health groups have pushed back on the industry study. Rich Kassel of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the oil companies assumed that EPA would include tighter limits on vapor controls — which are used to measure fuel volatility. Those technologies are expensive to install and public health advocates say they are not particularly effective. EPA has said it is not going to propose vapor controls but rather only sulfur limits, which are less expensive to implement.

In any event, Kassel said, EPA needs to get moving.

“In 2010, the White House committed to finalizing a Tier 3 rule to protect public health,” Kassel said. “We assume that once this rule gets going, we’ll see the administration make good on its commitment.”